news that a new Priest of Priests had been anointed in the Holy City of Ka did
not reach the backwoods of Natan for many months and the changes and political
intrigues taking place in the urban life of Khanlar went without notice in
places like Havor's Holding.
moon was reborn and eaten by Pavia's Dragon three times after the visit of the
Church Troopers before the next official visitors came to Havor's Holding,
however these visitors were expected, for they came every year. The one thing the Havors could always rely on in their simple life was
the coming of Vanaten the Buyer and his train of wagons at the end of the
Spring. Perhaps that was why Rune
decided to stay home this time and watch the buying instead of doing as he had
always done before, when he had slipped away into hiding watching the loading of
charcoal bags and dickering over trade goods from the safety of the woods.
house, in fact the entire holding, had changed much in the years since Rune had
arrived. They had added another
room to their home and had paved the yard into three terraces between the house
and the barn, bordered by the house to the north and the barn to the south and
they had built chest high stone walls to enclose the other sides. The boys and Rune had dug a well in the yard during the previous summer,
which in the winter saw it's contents turned to solid ice, nevertheless it gave
the yard a very civilized look even then. They
had bought another cow that was in calf at the time from a neighbor and their
original cow had been put to the same neighbor's bull three times since Rune had
arrived. They even had a mule now
to pull the small cart he had made to make the task of bringing the bags of
charcoal up to the barn a little easier. It
was a docile animal that a passing herder had sold them for two bags of charcoal
and a night's lodging.
truth while Khanlar as a whole was suffering decline Havor's Holding was
experiencing growth and good times. They
painted the house with a new coat of whitewash every year inside and out and the
little vegetable patch of a few years ago had grown to over an acre under
cultivation. Rune had also become
proficient with a bow, which had meant that they were eating more meat and had a
good supply of deer hides. Kirene,
who was now a young woman, had become a competent seamstress providing them with
well made clothes and Kirdi had become a cobbler of sorts under Rune's
encouragement, so that they all now wore leather shoes or boots.
Havor's held their holding from the Prince of Natan, (whoever he might be these
days) and as his tenants they had to produce a full quota every twelve months to
maintain their rights to the holding. The
Buyer was the collector of that tithe or rent, coming each year at the end of
Spring to gather up the stacked bags of charcoal to take them back to his master
in the City of Natan. Vanaten was
the fourth generation of his family to hold the post of Buyer and everyone knew
that his family had grown rich from their activities over the years, for not
only did he collect the quota but he also traded for any charcoal and goods the
tenant families could produce beyond that which the Prince demanded as rent.
Vanaten would then sell the extra charcoal and other products for a good
profit in the farms and towns along his routes. He enjoyed a monopoly and was rewarded well for it, as he traded with the
charcoal makers and tenant farmers of the forest without any competition
whatsoever, paying for what they manufactured with those essential trade goods
and food supplies they could not provide for themselves. Vanaten needed very little coin to invest in his trade goods, for he
rarely paid out more than a few coppers, sometimes a shilling or two, to any of
the people he dealt with.
it was that the family looked forward to the Buyer's visits almost as much as
they did the mid-winter Feast, for they received not only those basics and
luxuries which made life worth living but they also gained news of the outside
world. They might not want to go
out there but there was excitement and romance in the stories the Buyer brought
with him, the more so because they did not have to think of them as anything
more than just stories. The fact
was however, that although they might talk about the visit for months afterwards
it rarely lasted more than a few hours, while the sacks were counted and then
loaded onto the wagons. Even so
Mother never failed to treat it as a holiday, bringing out her home-made
elderberry wine for the occasion and spending the week prior to it cleaning the
whole holding to be ready for the admiration she believed it deserved.
year however the buyer was not exactly happy to sit down on the porch with a
glass of home made wine and spend time with her the way he had in years past.
They noticed the same look of fear in Vanaten's eyes that they had seen
in the eyes of the troopers they had entertained during the winter. He took many sidelong glances at the forest edge, as if he expected
something frightening to come charging out of it at any moment and each of the
wagons carried a guard beside the driver with a loaded cross-bow held at the
ready for any trouble that might suddenly occur. The obvious tension their visitors felt was made even more obvious by the
way they seemed never to take their eyes off the tree line of the clearing for
more than a few seconds at a time. The
other new thing added to these strange proceedings was a prison wagon which
traveled in the center of the train. In
it were a dozen or so half-starved convicts, linked to each other with chains
and wearing manacles and leg-irons. They
were a defeated bunch, half starved and dressed in rags that could do little to
keep them warm at night, for even at this time of year frosts were not uncommon.
the slaves worked carrying the Havor's sacks out of the barn to load on the
wagons the Buyer gave the family the little news his fear allowed him to
concentrate on. Vanaten told them
of the anointing of a new Priest of Priests, whom he described as a fanatic who
seemed bent on having every man, woman and child in Khanlar live like the monks
in some Gods-forsaken Silent Order. Natan
was now ruled by a Bishop, who occupied the deposed Prince Jarin's palace and
their fellow Natanese in the city and towns were suffering from many hardships,
not least of which was a shortage of food. There were few Natanese men between the ages of sixteen and sixty in the
land who were not chained like those who were loading the wagons, or had they
escaped the chains of a slave they had been forced into hiding in the forests to
avoid arrest for crimes their desperation continuously forced them to commit.
There were of course higher taxes and fear was everywhere, as the outlaws
of the defeated Brotherhood continued to stir up trouble throughout the land.
It was hard, the buyer said, to know how they managed to keep up the
fight, come to that it was hard to work out who they were with so many
ex-soldiers of the Brotherhood marching around in chains these days. Some even said they were the Ghosts of those who had died, that the Gods
would not let into the after life because of their heresy.
also the problem of the newcomers. . ." Said the Buyer, looking around him to be sure no unfriendly ears might
overhear his words, "It
seems like all the younger sons of the other Nations, not to mention greed
motivated merchants from all over Khanlar looking for a quick profit, are coming
into the conquered territories. It's
funny in a way, with the old Alliance Nations suffering absolute poverty as they
are, but they still expect to find the rich pickings the Priests promised them
during the War. Even the Church is
getting in on the business of quick profits and is selling off the children of
Natanese to these men for a few shillings, whenever some desperate family gets
into any sort of debt. I tell you,
you people are lucky to be out of it, there's hundreds of people in the towns
would swap with you and pay you overage to live like you do. You can thank the Binding Laws which keep folk tied to the place they
were in when the War ended that they're not all out here camping in the meadow.
Mind you a lot of poor folk in those Nations who sided with the Church
have taken to the roads of late, looking for a better chance elsewhere, but
they're not likely to come into the occupied lands, I shouldn't think."
was a snapping sound in the forest, a sound the Havor's recognized at once as a
deer stepping on a dry branch, but it caused the Buyer to almost fall out of his
chair as he spun round to look in the direction from which it had come. They also noticed every guard on the wagons turn as if in a drill
movement and one or two started to stand and bring their crossbows up to the
shoulder ready to fire.
do you fear so much from a deer stepping on a dead branch?"
Rune asked, a little more sarcastically than he would have liked, however
Vanaten missed the sarcasm completely in his preoccupation with his own safety.
more in the forest than deer these days and much for an honest man to fear when
he's out of the city and away from the protection of the troopers."
Vanaten said, without even seeming to notice them, almost as if he were
reassuring himself, but they could see the beads of sweat that fright had
brought out on his florid face. He
obviously felt he had something very real to fear out here in the forest. The fact that the manacled slaves were doing the work rather than the
usual peasant youths and tavern throw-outs, showed that even the very poor would
rather seek work elsewhere and risk being hungry, than venture into the
countryside these days.
and Mother moved away then towards the trade goods cart, for his thin-faced
clerk had finished the tally and it was time to barter. Rune got up and wandered over towards the wagons, more because he had
nothing else to do than to watch the misery of the sweating slaves struggling to
hoist the heavy bags of charcoal onto the already high piles that had been
collected earlier along the route. The
Overseer was a brute of a man and he pushed and hit the slaves more than was
necessary to speed them along. It
was obvious he also felt he had something to fear, for he kept looking over his
shoulder at the forest and there was no doubt he wished to get back to the
safety of the city as soon as he could. His
face was scarred and the tell-tale ribbing in the flesh of his neck showed that
he himself had worn a slave's collar for more than a few years. He wore an armless leather tunic and heavy boots, without the leggings
that the buyer and drivers favored. The
ash staff he carried had a heavy metal boss affixed at each end of it's five
foot length and in his belt hung a well-used leather lash and the short sword of
a tavern fighter, both ominously denoting that his ways were governed by force
rather than reason. From the looks
he received, whenever his back was turned, it was certain that the slaves waited
only for the day they could catch him unawares and beat him to death with their
fists as retribution for their suffering at his hands.
main loading had been completed and the slaves had already been bullied back
into the prison wagon, when the overseer remembered the spillings in the barn.
He unlocked three of the slaves from the rest of the line and dispatched
them to sweep up and sack the extra profit for his master, with threats of what
any time lost would cost them in pain and hunger. Rune followed the three men that had been singled out for this task, for
no other reason than he needed to get away from the Overseer. As they passed the house the last man stopped, nearly causing his fellows
to trip so sudden was his decision.
had come out of the house at that very moment, her chubby little legs trying
hard to balance her plump little body. Her
mop of blond curls danced in the breeze above a doll-like face that was
concentrating hard on the large piece of freshly baked bread she carried in her
little hands. Rune took it that it
was the bread that had caught the man's interest. The others, with glances back at the overseer, murmured something to him
urgently and they all moved on towards the barn. The scene was so dramatic, plump little Maer with so large a piece of
bread and this manacled slave, whose gray skin was so tightly stretched over his
malnourished body that every bone showed through. Maer, freshly washed with bouncing curls, compared to this dirt streaked
stranger whose hair was so closely cropped it seemed no longer than the day or
two's growth of beard that covered his strained face.
was inside the house at the run and out again in seconds with two loaves of
bread before the convicts had moved more than a few steps. Breaking the bread and forcing it into their hands he felt the same
feeling one must get diving into a raging river to save a drowning child. Their eyes showed him more thanks than any child could have given it's
own father, as they tore at the bread with dirty and broken teeth. They swallowed each piece so fast one would have thought they feared he
intended to take back what they did not eat immediately.
Overseer was behind him even as Rune heard him and his instinct took over as the
staff hit him across the shoulders. The
blow had been a warning rather than heavy and intended to harm, but Rune had
turned and wrenched the staff from the Overseer's hands before the man could
control his forward motion. Rune's
knee came up to double the ex-slave over with a scream of pain. Unable to control his anger the staff was above his head and about to
crush the Overseer's skull when Mother screamed. It was enough. Rune stopped
and looked around, the anger draining away as fast as it had come. Every guard in the clearing had his bolt aimed at Rune's heart.
Mother and the buyer were beside him, even as the Overseer started to
climb to his feet, both hands grasped below his belt and his face white with
pain. The threats he mouthed became
more fearful as the guards began to chuckle and then laugh openly, at the
bully's predicament. A half-wit had
had him down and could have ended him and he had not been able to defend himself
or even land a real blow. The
Overseer's right hand came away from his injury and a short-sword filled his
fist as he came upright.
The Buyer shouted, freezing the scene in a fear-filled moment in time,
"If anyone dies here today the next time we come this way may
very well be our last."
Overseer slowed but Rune's immediate death was obviously still his main
this half-wit and I may get killed the next time out. . ." Said the buyer more quietly,
. .and that will mean your Bond is up Bridor, then you will go back into the
slave barracks. How long do you think you will last in there, Bridor?"
Overseer wilted visibly, then he returned his sword to it's sheath and left
them, giving Rune a look as he passed him that could have boiled a snowdrift.
put it in my will that if I die, the bond I put up for him is forfeit and he
goes into the slave-barracks in Natan. . ."
had started to explain to Mother, but she had already left and was nowhere to be
seen, neither were the slaves. The
Buyer looked at Rune, sniffed in disgust and started shouting to his men to get
the train moving. In a very short
time the slaves came out of the barn carrying the sack of spillings they had
collected, with Mother walking out behind them. In fifteen minutes the clearing was as empty as the barn.
trade-goods stood piled upon the porch and Rune passed them to go into the
house, to find Mother stood in front of the fireplace stirring up the embers
with the poker, obviously deep in thought. He took it that his outrage had frightened her, so he took his chair at
the table and said nothing as she absent mindedly put a bowl of hot soup before
him. The children were out playing
with the new ball that had been part of the trade, so the two of them were alone
in the dark warm room. After what
seemed like an eternity, Mother brought a bowl of soup for herself and sat
across the table from Rune. Her
face showed signs of tension and for the first time he saw that her eyes were
red and that she had without doubt spent a lot of tears while she had stood with
her back to him in front of the fire.
came near to ending everything out there you know."
Mother said, seemingly without emotion.
know but those poor men needed that bread and when that animal hit me from
behind. . . well. . . something just snapped."
some reason he could feel himself flushing with what must be embarrassment,
"It's a good thing you shouted, I think I might just have
killed him had you not done so."
scared me you know Rune, you've never scared me before but then, I never saw
anyone get that angry in the turn of a breath. I never thought you had
that much anger inside of you, even after living under the same roof with you
all these years."
paused, as if afraid to continue, then she said so quietly that he almost did
not hear her, "Did you know any of those men you gave the bread to
replied that he did not and received the shock of his life when she said:
"I did Rune. . . the last one was my husband, Casper Havor." And then she began to cry again. . .
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